Seanad debates

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Adjournment Matters

International Agreements

1:00 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent to the House. I am particularly happy to welcome this Minister of State, because when I raised this issue four years ago, Deputy Roche was in command at the time. I presume this issue will get a more sympathetic hearing from Deputy Sargent.

The issue is that Ireland should accede to the Antarctic Treaty. I was staggered to discover that this treaty was agreed in 1959 and signed in 1961. The signatories include all European countries bar Luxembourg, Portugal and Ireland. That is a fairly shocking indictment of our attitude to the Antarctic and to the environment. In essence, this treaty is a litmus test of the commitment of Ireland to the environment, especially that of the Antarctic.

The treaty has several elements to it. The first element is to bind those signatories to keeping the Antarctic for purely peaceful purposes. Not many people could argue with this commitment. The second element is that there should be freedom between the signatory nations to share scientific knowledge, which should be freely available among them. I cannot see any reason for the last Minister's statement that this would not happen in the immediate term. Another element is that the territorial integrity of the Antarctic should be respected by all those nations. There is also a commitment that there be no nuclear activity nor nuclear testing in the area. There are several other issues, such as inspections, which are too detailed to outline in this debate.

There are significant benefits to Ireland and to the world from this. Climate change is now so important and we must respect places like the Antarctic as one of the few non-invaded zones of the world. It would be shocking if Ireland continued to refuse to sign this treaty. We have a great history in this area and the names of people like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and others will be always linked with the Antarctic. It is somewhat hypocritical to champion those people as great Irishmen and yet be one of the few European nations which noticeably has not signed the treaty.

I beg the Minister of State to relieve us of this embarrassment. He should make a promise today that Ireland will join those nations whose commitment to the environment, to the Antarctic and to sharing scientific knowledge is clear. We should not be numbered among those countries that are showing extraordinary reluctance to sign this 46 year-old treaty.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo i Seanad Éireann don chéad uair mar Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom mo leithscéal a ghabháil nach bhfuil an t-Aire Gnóthaí Eachtractha, mo chomhghleachaí, an Teachta Dermot Ahern, in ann bheith i láthair, ach tá áthas an domhain orm an deis seo a fháil freagra a thabhairt, go mór mhór de bharr go bhfuil an Seanadóir Ross ag chur na díospóireachta os comhair na Tithe.

It is an honour to be here today. It is my first time to speak in Seanad Éireann. It is a unique honour given that the matter on the Adjournment has been tabled by Senator Ross, father of the House and someone of whom I am a constituent as a graduate of Dublin University. I am also delighted to respond to this subject because it is close to my heart.

I thank Senator Ross for raising the issue of accession to the Antarctic Treaty. He has long been an advocate of Ireland's accession to this treaty and has been active in bringing the question of the Antarctic to our attention in the past. Given humankind's increasing awareness of the importance of our natural heritage and the need to preserve and protect areas of international importance, this is a welcome opportunity for us to discuss the issue of the Antarctic.

Irish interest in the Antarctic dates back at least to the days of Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean. Shackleton led three expeditions to the Antarctic, including the legendary Endurance expedition, and he died in South Georgia in his attempt to make a fourth exploration there in 1922. Today I propose to set out briefly some background information outlining the rationale for Ireland's position to date on the Antarctic Treaty. Senator Ross will undoubtedly be familiar with the background, but it will be useful for all Members of the House to familiarise themselves with it.

Signed by 12 nations on 1 December 1959 in Washington DC, the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961. It relates to the territory south of 60° South Latitude, an area now designated as the Antarctic Treaty Area. The objective of the treaty was to ensure "in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord". The treaty sought to prohibit nuclear testing and radioactive waste disposal, and to promote international scientific co-operation in Antarctica. It provided that no new territorial claims, or enlargement of existing claims, would be made by the contracting parties while the treaty was in force. Previously asserted claims would not be renounced.

The signature of the treaty was the culmination of work undertaken by the scientists from the 12 original signatory nations from July 1957 to 31 December 1958, which was designated by the UN as International Geophysical Year. A number of UN member states have since achieved consultative status by acceding to the treaty and by conducting substantial research in Antarctica. There are currently 46 treaty member nations, consisting of 28 consultative or voting members and 18 acceding members that are invited to attend the consultative meetings, but do not participate in the decision-making.

Consultative members include the seven nations that claim portions of Antarctica as national territory: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. While the treaty has been in operation since 1961, support for it is far from universal and fewer than one quarter of UN member states are party to it. Today, the Antarctic treaty system comprises the Antarctic treaty of 1959, the 1991 protocol on environmental protection, the 1972 Convention for the Conservation of the Antarctic Seals and the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

Over the years, the argument has been made that the Antarctic should be declared part of the common heritage of mankind and thus be treated in a manner analogous to outer space or the international seabed area and beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. This view has found expression in the call for a UN agreement to which all member states would subscribe as the best means to ensure full accountability for actions undertaken in, affecting and concerning Antarctica. Ireland has traditionally been sympathetic to the view that the Antarctic should be seen as part of the common heritage shared universally, and this has influenced our approach to date to the question of accession to the treaty.

There are other dimensions to this issue. Ireland welcomed the adoption by consensus of the UN General Assembly Resolution 57/51 of November 2002 which, inter alia, reaffirmed that the management and use of Antarctica should be conducted in accordance with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation for the benefit of mankind as a whole. The resolution also welcomed the practice whereby the Antarctic treaty consultative parties regularly provide the UN Secretary General with information on their consultative meetings and their activities in Antarctica.

Ireland has also welcomed the generally effective functioning of the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, the Madrid Protocol, which provides comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems. The protocol designates the Antarctic as a natural resource devoted to peace and science. It prohibits mineral resource activity other than in the context of scientific research and sets out principles and measures for the planning and conduct of all activities in the Antarctic area.

Ireland endorses the greatest degree of transparency in regard to Antarctic matters, and the Government is prepared to re-examine its relationship with the Antarctic treaty system. Clearly this is a matter of relevance to several Departments, not just the Department of Foreign Affairs. I understand the Minister for Foreign Affairs has asked officials in his Department to examine the issues involved in accession with a view to initiating a broader interdepartmental discussion on the question. I am sure my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, will keep Senator Ross informed as this consideration progresses.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply and his kind words. I became increasingly sceptical as I read through his reply, however, because I saw evidence of cut and paste from the reply that issued the last time I raised this issue. Some of the paragraphs are identical. The Minister of State is undoubtedly aware of this. However, there are also signs that whoever wrote it has tailored it for the Minister of State's political beliefs. The Minister of State is a person I respect greatly and perhaps it is even possible he has had an input into the response, something that would be unusual in this House.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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Who knows?

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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The initiation of an interdepartmental discussion is a depressing prospect for anyone seeking progress on this issue. Responses from interdepartmental bodies are generally put on the long finger. When can we expect a response? What are the Minister of State's personal views on this issue and what will his input be?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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I state clearly that this is an area of personal interest to me. I was not involved in formulating the response given that I was asked to take this Adjournment matter at short notice. I am pleased to be here and in a position to speak both personally and on behalf of the Government.

There is an urgency to this issue. I spoke to the Minister for Foreign Affairs briefly before coming to the House and I undertook to speak to him as soon as possible afterwards to convey Senator Ross's comments. Before I saw what the Department had prepared I conveyed my concerns to him regarding recent moves by several United Nations member states. The United Kingdom, in particular, is moving to establish its entitlements, as it sees them, to the seabed around Antarctica and other parts of the world, including Rockall. This presses us into action. The panic over mineral exploration is causing countries to dispose of their platitudes in some cases when it comes to protection of the natural environment. The realities of climate change, which require that we do not burn everything that is left, seem to have been set aside in the rush to colonise the last vestiges of mineral resources.

I appreciate Senator Ross's point as to the urgency of this issue. He will understand that I cannot offer an exact date for when the interdepartmental body will respond. I will make clear his and my concern to the Minister and also make clear that this is a matter of urgency which should not receive the same reply the next time it is raised. I hope the issue will have moved on by then.

As I stated in my reply, the Government view is that the Antarctic should be considered in the same way we consider the deepest ocean or outer space; it is beyond nation state entitlements or ambitions and should instead be set aside as a common heritage area. I am sure this will remain the Government's position.

Deputies:

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I hope he will return on a regular basis.